Fostering Good Growth

Meals at Andy’s are not meant to be relaxing in the sense that guests sit and wait for their food to be ready. Instead, they are assigned portions of the meal that they will contribute upon arrival: appetizers, salad, drinks, main course or dessert. This is not asking too much when there are eggs, herbs, vegetables, fruits and honey readily available. Before long, the back yard is buzzing with activity.

Eating dinner at Andy’s is a treat that I rate higher than getting invited out for supper anywhere else (which I love).  I have had this privilege exactly two times and I will tell you why you want to be on this invite list. You see, rather than landscaping with shrubs and bushes, Andy’s is landscaped with vegetables and herbs. Instead of entering through the front door, guests head directly into the backyard garden where the table and outdoor kitchen is located. The table is large and surrounded with a brick oven, a grill, climbing vines and twinkle lights.

It’s helpful to know a good ‘vine grower’ for a lot of reasons.

Even if horticulture isn’t your thing—it’s hard to get around it at this point in the year. Ads blast on the radio, Home Depot is packed and everyone from restaurateurs to brew houses boast their ‘locally grown’ menus. You may even hope to have a green,  patio view of this novelty in the midst of the city scape.

Isn’t it great when those who have a gift for growing step up so that the rest of us can enjoy the fruits of their labor? They can simultaneously make a place more beautiful and feed people. What a gift!

There is a fantastic collection of names for God in our lectionary. Vine Grower is among my favorites. I will admit that when the readings (like today’s reading) turn toward gardening metaphors, I look to the gardening gurus in my life that illustrate some of the finer points of fostering good growth like a good Vine Grower might do. I notice a few things that great gardeners seem to have in common:

1.     Vine Growers tend diligently: whether by weeding, watering or fertilizing--A good gardener is never far from their crop.

2.     Vine Growers prune extensively: As difficult as it can be to see a beautiful rose bush hacked down to nubs, doing so allows for the plant to flourish more abundantly.

3.     Vine Growers apply compost: Nothing is wasted-- no banana peel, watermelon rind or coffee grounds are tossed aside without purpose. Each provides essential nutrients for the benefit of the entire garden.

4.     Vine Growers nourish those around them, particularly by feeding them.

Maybe it’s easier to think about our own experiences of growth from this vantage point.  I need that reminder that the Vine Grower is never far from me. I know how uncomfortable it is to be pruned, yet in so doing, I am encouraged—even expected to grow more vibrantly, and I am nourished by the very things I might have imagined to be trash, used-up or spent.

Because of these things—not in spite of them-- I can hope to bear fruit; perhaps even to feed those around me (green thumb or not).

 

With a Burning Heart

Every Easter season, I’m struck with the story of the two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus in chapter 24 of Luke. Perhaps it’s because I relate to the two disciples in question, who begin the story with heavy hearts. Unbeknownst to them, they encounter Jesus, because “their eyes were prevented from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16).  They tell Jesus of the mysterious events of the crucifixion and their discovery of the empty tomb.  Christ then explains the Scripture to them and reveals Himself in the breaking of the bread. The disciples finally recognize Him and their response to this revelation is one of my favorite verses in the Bible: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)

Many times in my life, I’ve gone through dark periods  – the infamous dark valley of Psalm 23. Like the disciples, I enter a mixed period of doubt, hope and wonder when life doesn’t go the way I planned, or I encounter an unexpected setback. During these periods, I wonder at the presence of Christ in my life and question His will. I know that I’m traveling to a new destination, but I feel uncertain, perplexed and sometimes sad and lost. And then, oftentimes without realizing it, I encounter Christ along the way.

In a similar way the disciples could not recognize Jesus, Christ enters my life and moves me in ways that I don’t immediately recognize. I’m blinded by past suffering and errors and afraid to hope for what’s to come. Suddenly, everything falls into place. My eyes are opened and I suddenly see God’s plan for me.  Christ’s presence in my life raises my spirit and gives me new hope. And again and again I recognize the burning in my heart that comes with the truth and love of Christ. Only the Lord can make my heart burn in such a way, as I renew my Baptismal vows every Easter season. The disciples encountered the Lord on the road and God in the dark valley guided the shepherd. In such a way, the Lord has led me through a dark valley and I celebrate his resurrection with my family. He has met me on the road.

The tale of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus reminds me that Christ pulls through in his promises.  He invites me to renew myself with his resurrection.  Sometimes I don’t recognize the way the Lord moves me in my life, but I just have to trust that He will guide me. He challenges me to reacquaint myself with His word and fall back in love with Him.  They say that hindsight is 20/20 and, at least for me, that’s very true. In retrospect, when I consider moments in my life when I felt lost or needed extra guidance, I realize that I became stronger and was on my way to a new beginning. When I doubt the Lord’s presence in my life, I must remember to be extra vigilant to an encounter with Christ along the way.  No matter how long the road – or the dark valley – Christ will lead me to my destination.

 

Hellbender

“He descended into hell.”

What a cryptic phrase from the Apostles Creed!  What do we mean when we say these words at Mass every Sunday, or when we begin the Rosary? Did Jesus really go to hell?  Or, was it Sheol?  Or Hades?  Or the place of the just who could not enter heaven until Our Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross in atonement for our sins? Is there still the possibility of eternal damnation, or is “hell” merely an antiquated concept that the Church has outgrown because of Vatican II?  For answers let us consider The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 631 to 635.

The phrase, “He descended into hell,” must be considered in tandem with what immediately follows: “On the third day He rose again.”  As the Catechism states, “The Apostle’s Creed confesses in the same article Christ’s descent into hell and his Resurrection from the dead on the third day, because in his Passover it was precisely out of the depths of death that he made life spring forth.” [CCC631] Here we see the “both/and” dichotomy of the Catholic faith: Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  An easy trap to fall into is to focus only on one over the other.  One only has to see latest news stories coming out of Egypt or Syria to see that man is capable of great evil, but is his nature totally depraved?  Good Friday without Easter Sunday? Or the opposite end of the spectrum which some have termed “Christianity Lite” for those whose comfortable lives give them the promise of heaven without the reality of hell, or forgiveness without repentance? The truth lies between the two extremes.  All of humanity was forever changed because “on the third day He rose again,” but there is no Resurrection without a Crucifixion, and our willful embrace or rejection of this metaphysical reality effects how we live (or should be living).

A Catholic’s affirmation that Jesus was “raised from the dead presupposes that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his Resurrection.” [CCC632] That is, “Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead.”  But, by descending to the dead, did Jesus destroy the hell of eternal damnation? Oh, that the demands of faith could be that easy!  No, Jesus descended to the dead “to free the just who had gone before him.” [CCC633].  “He descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.” [CCC632].  So where is the “there?”

We shouldn’t think of hell as a place, but as a state of the soul in relation to God.  Biblical terms of “Sheol” and “Hades” are synonymous – the former is in Hebrew, and the latter in Greek.  Both are the “abode of the dead,” but this description still evokes the idea of a place.  Matters of the soul are difficult to envision, so we use imagery to help grasp metaphysical realities.  The souls in the “abode of the dead” are “deprived of the vision of God,” and this is true for the evil or righteous alike.  Jesus went for the holy souls who awaited their Savior “in Abraham’s bosom,” from the parable of the poor man Lazarus [Luke 16:19-31].  Remember, in this parable, reference is made to the resurrection of the dead.  As the parable teaches: belief must begin with Moses and the Prophets, because “if they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” [Luke 16:31]. 

Believers and unbelievers alike can agree that Jesus was killed.  But those who believe that Jesus is God must then logically conclude that God died on a Friday afternoon two thousand years ago. But, no! God cannot die!  One might then conclude incorrectly that “Jesus cannot be God because God cannot die.” Or another false belief will arise: that Jesus never really died, but was taken down from the cross before it was too late.  

How do we solve this riddle that Jesus Christ is God, and that “Jesus was crucified, died and was buried?” Again, from the Catechism: “In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead” to “open heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him.” [CCC635]  

Our discussion has now brought us into the metaphysical realm where images to not work.  What is the soul? What makes a person divine?  These questions are beyond the scope of this article.  Sufficient for now must be the simple faith and belief that Jesus Christ is both God and man.  He is a divine person who has a human soul.  The two are united and inseparable, and because God does not die, for He is Life Itself, after the Crucifixion, God descended into hell to release all who were waiting for the messianic promises of the Old Testament to be fulfilled.  Not even death could contain Him, so we can say with St. Paul, “O death, where is thy victory?  O death, where is thy sting?” [1 Corinthians 15:55].

The Resurrection itself is too important an event in history to celebrate for one day only, which is why the Church celebrates the Octave of Easter, culminating with Divine Mercy Sunday.    And, although Lent is forty days, Easter is fifty, culminating with Pentecost!

As we celebrate the most central mysteries of our faith during this holiest of liturgical seasons, let us all raise a glass to and be grateful for the unfathomable mercy of Jesus.  And, for those in the Washington, DC area, please join us Sundays during the Easter Season to celebrate at the most aptly named place for such an occasion: The Hellbender Brewing Company.

 

It's Always the Nice Ones

She was so pleasant when I met her.  She laughed politely in bed and stated that she, “Didn’t want to come to the ER, but the vomiting and dizziness had become so bad over the last two months that I had to come here.”  I asked her a few more questions. Her vomiting was worse when she moved from sitting to standing positions and with any kind of motion…maybe she just had vertigo?  She was also dizzy, which further pointed me in the direction of this benign diagnosis.  Her bowel movements were regular.  However, her history also included profuse right quadrant tenderness and night sweats.  She had lost over 40 lbs over the last three months.  She attributed the weight loss to her inability to keep food down and was actually pleased with the results.  Aside from confirming the existence of profuse upper right quadrant tenderness she had already reported, the patient’s complete physical exam revealed no clues to her condition.

I hoped her condition would be benign.  However, her symptoms affected almost every system.  Over the course of the evening, my preceptor ordered labs, an ultrasound of the patient’s abdomen, and a CT scan of her abdomen.  Things happen quickly in the emergency room, but they also happen slowly.  The process of ordering and interpreting all her blood work and resulting imaging took 4-6 hours.  She was quite sick, so I needed to check on her several times through my shift.  She was always positive and became a vibrant presence for most of my shift.  She was 60, with a daughter who was 27 who had just graduated from nursing school. 

Her CT scan came back showing masses consistent with cancer that had metastasized to her liver, lungs, spine, and bones. When my preceptor saw the CT scan, he asked me, “Was she nice?”  I responded, “yes.”  “It’s always the nice ones,” he replied.  I’ll never forget his question or his response.  He did not express disappointment that such a bad thing could happen to someone so good.  He said, “It’s always the nice ones.”  He continued, “I swear anytime someone nice comes in, they have cancer.”

After receiving her diagnosis, my patient asked for some chap stick and a blanket.  As a student I had the time to bring them to her.  When I brought them to her, she smiled sadly and told me her 27 year old daughter would be devastated by the news.  Then, she started describing her cross necklace that she wore daily.  She talked about how it encouraged her to be kind to other people and reminded her of the importance of God in her life.  She said that she forgot to wear it today, but that when she heard my name, “Christian,” she felt immediately comforted.  She laughed and wished me luck in my future.  She thanked me for caring for her that night.  How could she be grateful?  She had just discovered that she had cancer. 

Bad things happen to good people.  Life is not fair, but that night this patient reminded me that we have a choice to react joyfully to even those dark moments of our lives with kindness, joy, and laughter. 

Souping Up Your Rosary Game

Yes, another rosary blogpost on a Catholic blog. The rosary is an oft-written about topic: the importance of it, the fruit of it, etc. It's almost become a Catholic cliche. I want to offer this article to those of you who are in the midst of a love/hate or on again off again type of relationship with the rosary (and let’s be honest, most people who are trying to regularly pray it are at least partially in one of those two camps).  

I had my conversion praying bad rosaries, muting on commercial breaks to rush through a decade, hoping that I could pray my way out of the eternal condemnation I knew I was heading towards (I mean our Lady promised it right), until I realized those three minute windows of time contained a certain peace that I longed for. So I kept praying the rosary as best I could, and things starting melting away: destructive habits and then eventually my desire for them. And mysteriously, new graces and convictions began to replace them. And so I've continued praying it, as best I can. Maybe not daily (though I wish it was), but consistently, through dryness and bountiful grace, the graces contained in the rosary keep coming.

I was talking about this with my spiritual director and he was re-convincing me how necessary the devotion is with a terrifying story of an exorcism. In the midst of the exorcism the demon began laughing at the priest and called the faithful a bunch of fools. The priest told him to elaborate in the name of Jesus, and it replied that the heads of the evil ones servants are utterly crushed by the recitation of the rosary. We carry a great key to our freedom in our pockets and were fools because we never use it.

All that being said, the rosary is not an easy prayer to pray. We live in the age of distraction, so sitting still for 20 or so minutes and focusing on a string of prayers and meditating on scenes from the gospel, if we were honest, seems like the last thing an overstimulated mind would want to participate in.  Keeping the mind focused on such a repetitive, involved prayer can seem more like trying to ride a bull then a serene focusing on the Lord.  It can often be the most dry and distracted, rote and bland addition to our devotional lives. And sometimes it should be, but I want to offer some ways to dive more deeply into the mystery of this devotion for each of the ailments that seem to afflict us rosary-averse people.

St. Louis De Montfort offers several methods for entering into the rosary.  This resource is a treasure trove and is great in an of itself, but for the sake of writing a more interesting blog post, I’ll highlight a couple of them and also add some different tidbits that you can work into your prayer to help spice it up.

 

FOR THOSE POOR DISTRACTED SOULS

I recently came to the conclusion that if I was going to pray the rosary consistently I needed to do it the car from time to time.  I can never seem to focus, and I feel like I’m cheating prayer fitting it into my commute because I’m not finding other time to set aside for things like the rosary.  But alas, sometimes we have to start with the the less than ideal.  So I started praying with St. Louis’s second method to help me focus.  You add a word after “Jesus” to bring your mind back to the mystery you’re meditating on, to praise Him, etc (i.e. “Jesus becoming man, born to poverty, crucified for my sins, etc.).  Not only did this help keep my attention, but I actually got lost in prayer.  My car rides became the most fruitful part of my spiritual life.

 

FOR THE NOT SO VALIANT PRAYER WARRIOR

I’m the worst intercessor I know.  People ask for my prayers, and despite my best wishes (not necessarily effort) I always forget to pray for them.  The rosary has offered a solution to that as well.  Here’s a simple method for interceding with the rosary: 1) Jot down all the prayer requests you receive (have an email folder set aside or whatever).  2) Read the requests before you begin the rosary or pick a few per decade. 3) Throw in some one-liners in between the proper prayers.  This article has a good suggestion for a simple way to intercede using St. Elizabeth of the Trinity’s simple method for praying for others.  In his third method, while meditating on the crucifixion, St. Louis dedicates each “Hail Mary” to each of the nine choirs of angels, asking them to pray for a particular intention (i.e. “Holy Seraphim, ask God… Hail Mary… Holy Cherubim, ask God… Hail Mary… and so on).  I throw a decade or two like this in there from time to time. The possibilities are endless here.

 

FOR THOSE WHO GET ANNOYED WITH THE INTRODUCTORY PRAYERS (JUST ADMIT YOU’RE ONE OF US)

I also found that I got bogged down during the introductory prayers (I know, I’m really getting lazy), but I found that the Dominican way of beginning the rosary on Reddit of all places.  It’s really simple and to the point and gets my heart ready for prayer.

 

FOR THOSE LOOKING FOR AN EXTRA, PERSONAL UMPF

Lastly, someone taught me this 3-step way of praying the “Jesus Prayer”.  Sometimes I pause between each decade, pray this and then apply whatever came up during the decade.  Here’s the method:

1. Call to mind Jesus’ presence.  Make an act of faith that He is present to you.  Here and now.  Picture Him sitting across from you, His arms open, ready to receive what you have for Him.

2.  And He asks:  “What do you want to give to me?”  Bring to Him all your thoughts, feelings and desires- what is on your mind that’s impacting you- good and bad?  And then He asks “What do you want in return?”  Each meditation has a grace to ask for laid out.  In your own words, pray to receive this grace.

3.   Lastly, recite the Jesus prayer.  “Jesus, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Remember as you recite His most powerful name, that with the name of Jesus comes His presence, power and healing.  Repeat this process as many times as you need to in order to prepare yourself to encounter the Lord.

These have been little tweaks that have helped me transition from the rosary becoming a commonplace ritual that I powder my way through as quickly as possible to really the heart of my prayer life.  Use what you like, mix and match, and offer some more suggestions in the comments section.  Happy praying!

Coming to a City Near You: Not Catholic Beer Club

There has been a quite a stir around the nation with “Catholic Beer Club” taking root in many of America’s major cities. Bloggers for the CBC Times, such as Kyle Sellnow and Jacob Machado, believe that Catholic Beer Club has the potential to bring new people together and create foundations for strong friendships. See 4 Steps to Creating Community That Matters, 7 Ways to Start Having Conversations that Matter, Finding Community, or Building Community, and Love: The True Purpose of Community, amongst others. But many honestly believe that what the world really needs is Not Catholic Beer Club, otherwise known as NCBC. They think NCBC comes with more benefits and will more easily accomplish the goals of CBC.

When asked what sets Not Catholic Beer Club apart from CBC, Austin Martin, founder and president of NCBC, said “We feel like our club provides for a broader range of people, allowing for individuals from differing backgrounds to meet one another and build relationships.” He also expressed his desire to simply have a place where no one will ever ask hard questions or encourage anyone to become a better person.

NCBC’s vice secretary of social affairs, Victor Tracy, said that “setting up events takes almost no work due to the club pretty much having no motivations.” When asked about the club seeming to have negative vibes right in the name, Tracy responded, “Whatever negativity people might perceive in the name, they’re simply wrong. At NCBC, people have freedom to live by their own truths and think whatever they’d like about themselves and the world.” Tracy noted the great courage of one “fallen” brother who deeply believed he had wings and could fly off the rooftop patio bar. Reportedly, before he launched himself, the man proclaimed, “No one can tell me what to do with my own body.” The man is still in the hospital and now self-identifies as having a broken femur.

Shelby Womack and Ty Samson, two regulars at NCBC, both expressed how much fun they had at each of the events they’ve been to. Samson, who was believed to still be recovering from a hangover, said, “From what I can remember, it was a pretty good time.” Womack noted that NCBC is great because it provides opportunities for more than just beer. “President Martin believes that limiting people to only beer is not very inclusive,” she said. Martin confirmed this by telling us that “I believe that CBC is alcoholist. Not only are we not exclusive to only Catholics, we are not exclusive to beer.” Martin was emphatic that being alcoholist, the bigoted discrimination of certain kinds of alcohol, is extremely non-inclusive and prejudiced. “I’m definitely coming to this rather than CBC next month,” added newcomer Ryan O'Leary who hugely prefers whisky to beer. After getting in touch with club representatives, it turns out CBC does in fact welcome non-Catholics to their events. Though, as a beer club, they are still partial to beer.

While CBC has made quite a splash around the nation, President Martin thinks that within the next six months NCBC will be found in every major city in America and will most likely double CBC’s numbers. When asked about NCBC, president of Catholic Beer Club, Derek Roush said, “I don’t like it. It just does not seem like a sustainable model for a club. It is a club founded on absolutely nothing.”

Regardless, many people see Not Catholic Beer Club as a new and exciting way to meet a diverse range of people and to build and deepen friendships. So, if you are looking to make some new friends, look for the next Not Catholic Beer Club near you and check it out for yourself! NCBC will be meeting on exactly the same night as your local Catholic Beer Club events. You can find them at the bar directly across the street.

 

Disciples and Emojis

Think of the movie, The Sandlot. It is a classic tale of kid lore and childhood memories—revolving mostly around baseball. When the main character, Scotty, makes neighborhood friends the first summer he moves into a new neighborhood, he runs to the sandlot to play baseball (even though he has no idea what he’s doing). When the motley baseball team finds that the ‘Beast’ has Scotty’s dad’s baseball, autographed by Babe Ruth, Benny takes off running through town as a decoy to allow his friends to capture the all-important ball from the Beast’s backyard. In almost any good kid movie, at some point, the plot will depend on one character taking off running because the message they have to deliver deserves a quick pace.

Adults seem to lose this feeling of urgency with age, don’t you think? There’s a laughable, old Geico commercial that illustrates how this looks. When was the last time an adult ran to tell you anything? More than likely, much of the work of conveying emotion is done by emojis—they are quick, efficient and express most of our commonly-experienced emotions. Best of all, we don’t even have to break a sweat.

This is the antithesis of the story from Matthew’s Gospel today. This Easter Monday, we read:

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went away quickly from the tomb,
fearful yet overjoyed,
and ran to announce the news to his disciples…


Mary Magdalene and the other Mary have just had their worlds rocked at the discovery of the empty tomb and they cannot move fast enough to deliver the message of hope they have received. Who’s to say that in a different time they might have chosen a different means of communication, but some news is best shared, personally—like the fulfillment of our Salvation story in Christ’s rising from the dead.

Certainly we would be quick to find any number of distinguishing characteristics between our own lives and those of the women who find Jesus’ tomb empty. Yet, as an Easter people, the ways in which we re-engage the world after celebrating the Triduum has the capacity to convey the same truth that Mary Magdalene and Mary’s delirious rushing, produced at the time of Christ.

Today might be your first day back at work after the Easter holiday. Perhaps you work in the private sector that gives Easter Monday as a holiday. Either way, the Marys pose an important question to us today:

How am I choosing to share the news of the Resurrection?

Sandlot-style or Geico-style?

 

 

Cosmic Loneliness

Eli, Eli, la'ma sabach'-tha'ni
My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? 

These are the words we hear Jesus praying just moments before he gives up his life for our sake and commends his spirit to the hands of the Father.  

Today we begin the Easter Triduum with Holy Thursday. We walk with Jesus through His passion, death, and resurrection. Reflecting on the story of Jesus' passion I was struck by the loneliness of Jesus.

Perhaps I zeroed in on the loneliness of the Passion story because I have been reflecting and pondering loneliness for a few weeks now. I speak with friends who desire marriage but currently experience profound loneliness and wonder if they will ever find someone to marry. I have read through prayer requests of husbands or wives who feel lonely in their marriage. Fellow men discerning the priesthood experience a fear of the possible loneliness of celibacy. All of us experience a sense, at one time or another, that despite our world's "connectedness" we are disconnected. A message can be sent around the world in an instant, and yet in our direct experience, in our relationships and day to day lives, we experience no connection. We are alone and restless. A universal human experience is loneliness, though at different times and to different degrees, none of us can escape the experience.  

We can narrow in on the isolation and loneliness of Jesus during his passion and death and recognize we are not alone in our suffering, Jesus knows it well. In the garden, Jesus went off to pray – and His friends fell asleep. After His arrest – his apostles fled. The crowds who had just welcomed him into Jerusalem as king now called for His crucifixion and the release of Barabbas instead. Finally upon the Cross Jesus cries out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Strangers dismissed him, his friends denied and fled him, and it appeared that God himself had deserted him. Is this not the most profound loneliness possible? In all the cosmos, throughout the entire universe, from all creation seen and unseen, Jesus was alone upon the cross, left to die. Do we not at times feel that strangers abhor us, we have no friends, and even God seems to be absent, and all we can do is await death?

But this is not the end!

When Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” he was beginning to pray Psalm 22. The Psalm starts out in mourning and despair, but it ends with hope and praise. Psalm 22 goes on to read, “I will tell of your name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation, I will praise you: You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you sons of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you sons of Israel! For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him…The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord!”

Jesus, in his loneliness, pain, and despair, cried out to God. He let his suffering be known, he asked the Father to spare him from the passion he knew was to come. But then he embraced the chalice, took up his cross, remembering the Lord is faithful, laid his life down for others knowing that the cry of the afflicted had been heard, and his death would bring forth resurrection and salvation for the afflicted. God has not hidden his face from the afflicted, for the face of Jesus is the face of God. Through Jesus the bread of life, the afflicted shall eat and be satisfied. Jesus upon the cross in his suffering and loneliness proclaimed that the glory and victory that God promised through Psalm 22 was now at hand. Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection reconciled all of creation, and this cosmic event is happening at every Mass throughout the world, and we enter into it especially during the Easter Triduum. 

In our moments, weeks, or years of loneliness, we can grow hopeless and we can despair and grow restless. This is not a pleasant place to be, and we always try to medicate and ease this pain. It is in these moments we often reach out for what Bishop Baron calls "junk food for the soul, wealth, pleasure, honor, or power." We try to medicate with this junk food and it tastes good at first bite, but it leaves us malnourished. In our suffering and unrest, our soul is hungry, but not for junk food, it is hungry for grace, and though we fill our body with junk food, our soul longs for the grace which will nourish it.

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when the wedding ran out of wine, he turned water into wine of great quality that would not run out. Later in his ministry, he multiplied five loaves of bread to feed the multitudes and they ate and were satisfied and baskets full of bread were left over. At the last supper, Jesus took wine and bread and transformed them into his body and blood offering them for us, so that we may drink and never go thirsty and eat and never go hungry. Jesus is the one who nourishes our souls.

As we enter this Holy Week I invite you to bring your loneliness to the liturgies. I invite you to experience Jesus’ loneliness and recognize that in your loneliness, whatever it may be, Jesus is there. He knows what you feel, and you are not alone. Do not run from what makes you lonely; do not seek to ease your loneliness with junk food. Stand before that which makes you lonely, show it to God the Father, do not be afraid to cry out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me, where are you?”

But then marked by your Christian hope, cry out your praises to the Lord. Oh Lord, you hear me in my affliction, Lord you do not turn your back from me, you will feed me and I will be satisfied. Stand at the foot of the cross and let the blood and water that pours forth from the side of Christ wash over you, purify, and fill you. His sacrifice has won your salvation, and he is with us always. Encounter him in the Eucharist, and let your soul be fed by grace.

I Vow to Thee, My Country

I have recently grown fond of a rather beautiful poem. It’s called “I Vow to Thee, My Country.” Written by Sir Cecil Spring Rice, it outlines the devotion one has to his country, and the longing love to his eternal homeland.

It’s uncertain when exactly Rice wrote the poem, but many agree it was around 1912 when he was appointed as Britain’s ambassador to the United States. His main task: to convince the Woodrow Wilson Administration to abandon neutrality and join the fight against the Germans in World War I. His mission was successful, and in 1918, was recalled back to his island home. It was then that he reworked the poem to reflect a mood of somber loyalties one has to his country.

The poem was at one time memorized by all English boys and girls. So powerful was the appeal that Gustav Holst, composer of The Planets symphony, modified a key movement from “Jupiter” to fit it to the poem. It is a common anthem sung at numerous official events, and while it has a distinctly English feeling, for sure, the essence is universal.

Once titled “Urbs Dei” and “The Two Fatherlands,” the core theme is duty and love to home. It is appropriate, considering for most people, their place of birth (or adopted new country) is like their own familiar Jerusalem, a City of God. Pius XII once said

It is quite legitimate for nations to treat [their] differences as a sacred inheritance and guard them at all costs. The Church aims at unity, a unity determined and kept alive by that supernatural love which should be actuating everybody; she does not aim at a uniformity which would only be external in its effects and would cramp the natural tendencies of the nations concerned.

This is the essence at which the poem aims, to embrace the natural love one feels for their country, while keeping the heart and soul direct to the Eternal City in Heaven. While nations may go to war to protect themselves, the “country I heard of long ago” is gentle, and all her paths are peace.

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above
entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
the love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
that lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
the love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
the love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

And there's another country, I've heard of long ago
most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
we may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
and soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
and her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

Denver’s Divine Mercy Fitness: A conversation on spiritual and physical fitness with owner, Steve Smith

We all know that physical fitness is important. Staying in shape (or not) can affect everything from the way we feel when we look in the mirror to how well we sleep at night. But how often do we think about the connection between physical fitness and our faith?

We hear often in Christian circles that our bodies are gifts from God, and therefore worth taking care of. But what about the way we take care of them? Do we glorify God in our manner of working out? Does our attitude at the gym honor the dignity of the people around us?

Divine Mercy Fitness in Denver, CO has taken a completely Christ-centered approach to fitness, and the results have been amazing. Not only have gym members found themselves in the best shape of their lives, but they have also grown in strength of heart and soul. I recently got a chance to talk to gym owner, Steve Smith about physical fitness, it’s connection to the spiritual life, and the beauty of working out in a Christ centered atmosphere.

According to Steve, there are lots of elements to general fitness. Many people focus on strength, or cardio, or stamina, but to really be in shape, your body needs some of each. Each area complements the others and helps prevent injury, not to mention helping to prevent boredom. Steve mentioned that since running became a big thing in the 1970s focusing on strength kind of went by the wayside, but people who don’t contribute to their cardio with strength training are prone to osteoporosis and increased pain, especially as they age. “When you are strong you feel more capable of interacting with the world and more confident. Both (strength and cardio) are important, but they need to be balanced out,” said Steve.

General fitness is taking care of our bodies as the wonderful gifts they are. It is enabling ourselves to be the best we can be, and to have the strength and energy to carry out our vocations well. But according to Steve, the connection between physical and spiritual fitness can run even deeper than that. Working out, especially doing something like Crossfit (Divine Mercy’s main type of workout) is tough. Sticking to a fitness routine is tough. Working on our physical fitness requires hard work, perseverance, and commitment through repetition. All of which are virtues necessary in the spiritual life. Even further, a solid fitness program teaches us to self-examine, create goals, and reflect on our successes and failures. “Physical fitness relates to the spiritual life in that we are constantly growing by doing the same thing, persevering, adjusting, changing, having conversations about how we’re doing. It relates to that continued process to be better, or more of what we are capable of being,” Steve said.

That being said, perseverance can be taken too far, self-examination can become destructive, and growth in physical fitness can be sought for the wrong reasons. Even when we are striving to just take care of our bodies, we can easily get caught up in pushing ourselves too hard, measuring our success on the way we look, or forget that we ought to seek fitness for the sake of loving and glorifying God. What can we do to keep ourselves in check?

The biggest thing, according to Steve is to work out in a community. This is one of the most important aspects of Christ-centered fitness, because when Christ is present, and the group acknowledges that “the community that forms around that is more wholesome and more true.” At Divine Mercy Fitness, the language is clean (or at least expletives are used in appropriate context), the communication and challenging of one another is more loving and authentic, and the vanity is much less. In many gym atmospheres, especially Crossfit gyms, vanity is a huge motivator. Many of these gyms are full of immodest clothing and encouragement through crude language or thinking about that bikini body. But in a Christ-centered community like Divine Mercy Fitness, there is a more respectful atmosphere, both towards the self and the people around you. “It creates a very authentic, human community,” said Steve, “It exposes our prideful selves, but doesn’t allow us to sit in our prideful self. It allows us to look at our vanity and realize it’s ridiculous. We can also keep vanity out of our fitness routines with simple things such as not working out in front of a mirror, wearing respectable clothing, and praying before and during out workouts.”

Christ centered fitness goes deeper than taking care of our bodies, and does more for our bodies than keeping them healthy. It instills a deeper sense of respect for our bodies and those of others. It reminds us that our bodies and the way we treat them are intricately connected to our soul and the way we care for it. It reminds us that we are capable of all things through Christ, and helps us to run the race that is set before us.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” Hebrews 12: 1-2